After this programme, David Baddiel tweeted that someone had shared a quote with him – “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (James Baldwin). Confronting Holocaust denial is a horrifically difficult subject, for historians and for everyone else. Should these people be allowed to spew their poison, especially on prime time TV, and should what they say be dignified by listening to it and responding to it? It must have been very hard for David Baddiel, whose own grandparents had to flee Nazi Germany, to listen to a Holocaust denier, even to be in the same room as him. But these people are out there, and what they say is out there, and ignoring them isn’t going to change that.
I was expecting this to be mostly about the “hardcore deniers” who claim that the whole thing was a hoax; but it showed that there are a lot of facets and layers to Holocaust denial, and just what a complex issue it is. It wasn’t the best-made programme I’ve ever seen, because it jumped about a lot, but it made some extremely important points. It only went so far, though. There were roads it only went a little way down, because it would just have been too dangerous to publicise some of what’s being said, on a mainstream TV channel. But it’s out there, especially on the internet where it’s very difficult to deal with; and it was brave of David Baddiel to take it on.
There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there
Even the most accepting of people must sometimes have wondered for whom Lee Harvey Oswald was really working, or whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was really an accident. Every time a popular website or social media platform experiences technical problems, you can guarantee that someone’ll claim that it’s due to dark forces sponsored by the government of AN country they don’t like. Every time there’s an election, some sore losers who are disappointed by the result claim foul play. It ranges from the history-changing to the treatment of fiction as fact to the plain silly. Did Roosevelt know in advance that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbour? Has there been a 2,000 year cover-up over the Holy Grail meaning a bloodline rather than a cup? Is Elvis Presley alive and well and running a chip shop?
OK, lose the chip shop idea, and accept that works of fiction are just fiction, but, quite seriously, and very frighteningly, it’s not that hard for a manipulative person or group of people to put forward a plausible-sounding argument and persuade others to their way of thinking. In a lot of ways, that’s just what the Nazis did. Ironically, as David pointed out, the Holocaust is one of the best-documented events (for lack of a better word) in history. All those records at the concentration camps. All the testimonies and memoirs of survivors, and of the Allied troops who liberated the camps. The Nazi propaganda.
The Nazis tried to cover up what they’d done
And yet, as David said, the starting point for Holocaust denial was that the Nazis tried to cover it up. He visited the site of the concentration camp at Chelmno, which was purely a death camp. There were no survivors. The bodies were burned, then dissolved using napalm and acid, and the bones were made into fertiliser … it’s so horrific that it’s hard to take in, which is another problem. Why did the Nazis want to cover up something which, to their mindset, was a great achievement? And how did they think they could? How did they think people would account for the fact that millions of human beings had disappeared? This wasn’t when the war was clearly lost, when they were afraid of what the Allies would do to those who’d been involved in the worst atrocities in human history. This was earlier on. No real explanation could be given – but the point was that this was the start of Holocaust denial, by the very people who perpetrated the Holocaust.
Softcore denial – existing hatreds, and a lot to take in
So that was the cover-up approach. I don’t know how relevant that is, though. Plenty of things have been covered up, but the Holocaust is not one of them. More relevant is the “softcore denial”- and there are so many different strands to this. And this also started early on, with Allied governments not wanting to release too much information about the reports coming out of Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied states. Part of that was because they weren’t sure that people would believe it. And that is undoubtedly a huge problem. There’s always been persecution. There’ve always been massacres. But it’s very hard to take in something on the scale of the Holocaust, and also the industrial nature of it.
Another issue is that this involved demographic groups who have often been marginalised and the subject of negative stereotypes. David looked at some statistics about Holocaust denial, and I’m pleased to say that the UK had one of the lowest rates, but, even here, the wartime authorities were making some very unpleasant comments about the need to stress that Nazi atrocities were being committed against blameless people – the inference being that Jews might not be seen as blameless. And it’s not just Jews. No Roma or Sinti people appeared as witnesses in the Nuremberg trials. Gay men liberated from the concentration camps, Jewish or otherwise, were sent to civilian prisons to complete their sentences. It’s all fuel to the flames of denial.
Softcore denial and changing the focus of history
It was also suggested that the Holocaust was played down because, as relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union worsened, the focus switched to fighting the Cold War and the need to keep West Germany sweet meant that there was a sense of … well, “Don’t mention the war”. I’m not 100% convinced about that. The immediate post-war ideas of a large-scale de-Nazification programme, which would have taken decades, were abandoned, and the Nuremberg trials were wound down, but I think that that was due more to lack of resources than anything else. It’s worth noting that many countries refuse even to recognise the Armenian genocide for fear of offending Turkey, though.
What is undoubtedly a major issue at the moment, and which led to the president of Poland refusing to attend the commemoration in Jerusalem of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is the approach to wartime history being taken in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Again, there are many strands to this. It’s partly, especially in Poland, a feeling that the emphasis on the Holocaust means that insufficient attention is being paid to other aspects of suffering under the Nazis. I don’t really get that. It’s not a competition. But it’s certainly a big issue in Poland.
It’s also the fact that certain countries, especially former Soviet countries, want to attack the Soviets rather than the Nazis. David travelled to Lithuania, which is notorious for having had a high rate of collaboration with the Nazis. When I went to Lithuania, the local guide was a lady whose grandmother had sheltered Jewish friends and been recognised by Yad Vashem for doing so, so I didn’t experience any sort of “denial” in Lithuania. However, in Latvia, we visited a museum where we were shown a video about Latvia’s experiences during the war, and all it did was go on about how evil the Soviets were. The Nazis were barely mentioned, and the Holocaust was not mentioned at all. Everyone in the group said immediately afterwards how shocked and disgusted they were by it.
The issue David was exploring in Lithuania was the controversy that’s arisen since it came to light that a leading Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan, seen as a national hero, was a collaborator who was directly involved in facilitating the murders of Jews. This is another issue – and the end of the communist era, with its restrictions on what was and wasn’t being taught, means that more and more is coming to light about collaboration. Even in countries where there were pro-Nazi regimes or Nazi puppet regimes, the idea that it was only German Nazis who carried out the Holocaust has been perpetuated. Even Austria’s been recorded as a victim of the Nazis. Obviously no-one’s saying that more than a minority of people collaborated with the Nazis, but it’s proving hard to face up to even that much.
Softcore denial, the people who say that it’s time to move on, and the people who fling the terminology of the Nazi era around in modern politics
Then you’ve got the people who accept what happened, but say that it’s time to stop talking about it and to move on. Is that Holocaust denial? I’ve heard people say that they don’t see why the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War or the 75th anniversary of D-Day should have been commemorated. No-one would call that “war denial”. It’s ignorant, and it’s failing to understand the importance of the lessons of history. Is it denial? It’s a slippery slope, that’s the problem. And it’s usually followed by “Well, we don’t commemorate [any other event of your choice]” – and there we go, downplaying what happened. And every person – and I see this happening frighteningly often, and it’s something that the BBC itself is guilty of – who compares modern-day politicians whom they dislike to Nazis is effectively a softcore Holocaust denier as well, downplaying what the Nazis did.
Denial and Middle Eastern entanglements
Then came a path that the programme didn’t go down. If I’d thought about it beforehand, I would have expected the highest rates of Holocaust denial to be in … well, it’s not very fair to generalise or to point fingers, but there are certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe which have a long history of anti-Jewish feeling, so I’d have said one of those. No. It’s in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 82%. Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa too – the Middle East and North Africa, where the King of Morocco heroically refused to deport Moroccan Jews to Vichy France. This is something else: it’s the tangling up of the Holocaust with modern day political issues involving the state of Israel. The programme didn’t continue down this road. But it’s not just an issue in the Middle East … and, whilst that was evidently adjudged not to be a matter for this programme, maybe it’s one for Panorama.
Hardcore denial, social media, and courtroom trials
I’d been expecting less about this and more about the “hardcore” deniers, but I think the programme got it right. “Softcore denial” is perhaps more dangerous. So what did it say about the hardcore deniers? Not that much, and I think they must have decided that it would have been too dangerous to say much. There was more about what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to say than what they were actually saying. David met a representative from Facebook, and they discussed the issue of what forms of Holocaust denial are and aren’t banned, and should and shouldn’t be banned. These are very difficult questions. He spoke about a major trial in the 1970s – and the fact that, as much as the person concerned needed to be stopped and decided to be punished, it raised the profile of Holocaust denial. So what do you do?
The most famous Holocaust denial trial is the one in which historian Deborah Lipstadt took on Holocaust denier David Irving. David Baddiel met Deborah Lipstadt and her lawyer Anthony Julius (if you know the name, it’s because he was the divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales), and Deborah spoke very movingly about how distressed Holocaust survivors had handed her pieces of paper bearing the names of members of their families who’d been killed in the Holocaust. You could certainly see why she felt the need to take Irving on, and to defeat him in court. But, although reference was made to pseudo-science and fake reports, the programme wasn’t able to get to the root of why Irving would have said what he did, because how can you give someone like that airtime?
Meeting a Holocaust denier
David did speak to a Holocaust denier. And he got annoyed with himself, because he got bogged down into arguing with this man, into dignifying his lies with a response. We didn’t see that. We did see the programme making the man look like a complete fool. He was talking utter drivel, claiming that Auschwitz had bakeries and swimming pools. He got his own argument in a twist, saying that there’d been no gas chambers and that the idea had been made up by people who wanted to blame others for not rescuing them from gas chambers, when he’d just said that there were no gas chambers. He then sang a ridiculous song, accompanying himself on his guitar, about there being Mercedes cars parked outside synagogues. He came across as a total idiot. Maybe making fun of liars is the best way to deal with them.
But why was this man saying this? I can understand why a Lithuanian nationalist might not want to accept that a Lithuanian national hero collaborated with the Nazis. I can understand why people in Krakow might feel narky that tourists come to their beautiful city and use it as a base from which to see the most notorious place on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can understand that Austria wants to think of itself as a victim of the Nazis, even though it welcomed them with open arms in 1938. I understand that certain political groups find it beneficial to whip up hatred against certain demographic groups.
But why would a middle-aged man living in a small town in the Republic of Ireland, a country which was not directly involved in the Second World War and which is home to fewer than 2,000 Jewish people, say that the Holocaust was a hoax? Why would he devote time and energy to posting about it on the internet, to smashing up a TV in public as a protest against Holocaust memorial events, and to making up ridiculous songs about it? (I’m not for a minute having a go at the Republic of Ireland, and nor was David: it’s just where this man happened to be from.)
The explanation seemed to be that it was a form of escapism. It wasn’t political. He’d apparently made some attempt to stand as an independent politician, but we’re not talking about some of the extremist parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which are actually part of the political scene. It was some sort of fantasy world, that he devoted his time to in the way that other people might turn to books or films or TV programmes. And also that it was anti-consensual: it was someone trying to make out that he was clever because he wasn’t believing what he was being told. It’s really hard to make sense of that. I can understand people manipulating history for political reasons. But this sort of thing is just beyond bizarre. But it’s out there.
Cranks can be very dangerous … and there are people out there who are far more dangerous
And yet even an idiot who sings about Mercedes cars can operate a website peddling lies, or post lies on social media. And there are far more dangerous people out there – the likes of David Irving, who write scholarly books about this. There’s so much rubbish out there. And there’s no way of controlling it.
Meeting a Holocaust survivor
At the end of the programme, David spoke to a lady who’d survived the Holocaust, and she told him a little about her experiences. So much detail, even in those few moments. The evidence, the physical evidence, the evidence of survivors, the evidence of the Allied troops who liberated the camps, the evidence of people who lived near areas where massacres took place.
But you’re dealing with people who don’t want to know the truth, because it doesn’t suit their political ends, and you’re dealing with people who want to live in a crazy fantasy world and think that they can see something that others can’t. David was able to make this particular guy look like a complete idiot. Would that it were possible to do that with all the Holocaust deniers out there.
What’s the answer?
I want to say “education”, but that can be a softcore denial tool in itself – to witness, the Latvian museum. Memorials? Tighter control over websites? Keep telling the true stories, I suppose is the best we can do. And well done to both the BBC (and I don’t often praise the BBC these days) and Channel 4 for an excellent series of programmes to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Keep telling the truth. It’s all we can do.